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9 November 2022

Norman Wilkinson and the fine art of advertising

The British artist used his design skills to transform both battleships and railway posters.

By Michael Prodger

There are very few artists who can claim to have made a major life-saving contribution in war. Most, throughout history, have been observers and recorders, even if they have seen active service. Norman Wilkinson, on the other hand, saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men.

During the First World War, Wilkinson (1878-1971) was a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. His experience was widespread – he served in the Dardanelles, on a minesweeper in the English Channel and on anti-submarine patrols in the Mediterranean. This posting was of particular importance. German U-boats were a scourge throughout the war, sinking, by the time fighting was done, ten battleships, 18 cruisers and more than 5,000 merchant vessels and fishing boats.

On a train journey in April 1917, Wilkinson was mulling on the U-boat threat when: “I suddenly got the idea that, since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course on which she was heading.”

Others had also experimented with this idea of visual disruption but got nowhere with the Navy. Wilkinson christened the idea “dazzle” and succeeded where they had failed. He was given a studio in the Royal Academy Schools and he recruited a predominantly female team of students to help him perfect the technique. They developed a scheme of large geometric patterns, stripes and zigzags which they painted on to model ships in black, white, pale blue and green. The patterning – different for every ship – broke up their silhouettes when seen through the periscope Wilkinson had installed in his office.

The Navy approved and the designs – giant works of abstract art – were painted on thousands of ships by the end of the war. The idea was applied to some aerodromes, aircraft and military buildings too, and Wilkinson was seconded to Washington to establish the Department of Ship Camouflage in preparation for the US Navy adopting dazzle for its own vessels. After the war, there were various claims as to who had invented the technique: Picasso claimed it was a cubist innovation; the vorticist artist Edward Wadsworth, who oversaw the camouflaging of more than 2,000 vessels, has often been credited too. But in 1922 an Admiralty committee declared Wilkinson the inventor and awarded him £2,000. He was also made an OBE and received the Belgian Order of the Crown.

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[See also: Hercules Segers: the visionary printmaker who inspired Rembrandt]

Wilkinson’s wartime concerns extended to the artistic as well as the practical. In his memoir The Dardanelles: Colour Sketches From Gallipoli he lamented “the lack of pictorial records of this war”, in particular those “made by artists of experience, who actually witness the scenes they portray”, and he believed that “our descendants will surely regret the omission”. At the time of the Dardanelles campaign there was no official war artists scheme – that was established in 1916 – and Wilkinson feared, erroneously, that, although there were artists on the Western front, “life in the trenches is so arduous that it is doubtful if many records will come to us from this source”.

At Gallipoli he witnessed events unfold “by climbing into the foretop of the vessel” where “it was possible to watch the living cinema of battle”. He wrote as an experienced marine painter and magazine illustrator, and someone well aware of the long tradition of sea-battle painting. 

Although he was born in Cambridge, most of Wilkinson’s artistic training took place on the south coast. At 21 he went to Paris to study figure painting but it was maritime subjects that fascinated him most. He had also commenced a career as an illustrator, with his first commission for the Illustrated London News coming in 1898. He was to have a long relationship with the magazine and was on assignment for it in Berlin in 1913 when he secretly drew the Zeppelin. Ironically, Wilkinson was later lucky to escape a Zeppelin bomb that was dropped on the Royal Academy as he worked on his dazzle scheme there.

By the first decade of the century, Wilkinson was well known enough as a sea painter that the White Star Line commissioned a painting of Plymouth Harbour for the first-class smoking room of the Titanic – and a companion painting, The Approach to the New World, for its sister ship, the Olympic.

During the Second World War, Wilkinson painted numerous marine pictures and naval engagements, including the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the sinking of the Bismarck, and the “little ships” at Dunkirk. An exhibition of his works, “War at Sea”, was shown at the National Gallery in 1944.

In the war years Wilkinson also worked as a poster designer for the government – advertising the war savings scheme and warning of the consequences of loose talk. This graphic work was a continuation of his commercial designs of the 1920s and 1930s, when he had produced travel posters for various railway companies.

He had entered the commercial field dismissing existing advertising images as “an uninspired jumble of small views of resorts… with a good deal of meaningless decoration” and recommending that the railway companies recruit Royal Academicians to improve the standard of their design work.

This picture of 1935, hymning the Glasgow-to-Oban line for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, shows what he could achieve. In it he perfectly distilled the interwar aesthetic and produced an image of clarity and beguiling beauty. Wilkinson engaged with both the restricted colour palette required by mass printing and the attention span of rail passengers, leaving behind the loose handling that marks both his oil and watercolour paintings for instant legibility and impact. Nevertheless, he ensured that there was more art than advertising to his posters. At exactly the same time, Brian Cook was doing something similar with his dust-jackets for Batsford’s “The Face of Britain” guide books.

In 1914, a writer for the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts defined the necessary qualities of an effective poster. It must contain a good idea originally expressed; it must be simple and obey pictorial rules; it must be well drawn and deliver its message effectively; and it must be striking in colour.

Wilkinson’s work conforms in every particular. He had the graphic equivalent of perfect pitch and understood that posters have an emotional function too. Here the glens in the gloaming are at their most mystical, the lit train windows and steam offer dabs of light as the track is lost in the shadow of the heathered hills. He includes enough detail – settling sheep, an arc of reflecting river – but not so much as to distract. And, as with all his railway posters, he was true to the piece’s core purpose: who wouldn’t want to buy a ticket and join the passengers on board as they bowl through this spectacular landscape and stare out as the dark settles? Wilkinson’s consummate work offered not just journeys but infinite possibilities.

[See also: Fashion and fetishism: the drawings of Henry Fuseli]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink